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Lawsuit stirs Litchfield turbine debate

It appears the long debate on whether the town should allow wind turbines has been stirred up yet again.

In March, town officials passed a local law that banned construction of industrial wind turbines, effectively putting to rest a debate that has been ongoing for at least two years.

Albany-based NorthWind and Power LLC has talked about building twelve 20-megawatt turbines on Dry Hill.

Proponents argue that it would bring money to the area through payments to the town, landowners and local school districts. Opponents point to the issues some residents are facing with noise from the 37 turbines in Fairfield and Norway.

Now, five Litchfield residents have brought a lawsuit against the Town Board alleging the law “wrongfully and effectively banned” wind energy development all together. “We just felt that we were being treated unfairly,” Dry Hill landowner Harold “Jake” Rasbach said. “If they don’t put them here, they’re going to put them somewhere else.”

Attorney Meave Tooher, of Tooher & Barone, LLP based in Albany, is representing the residents and said they would like to see the Town Board fairly serve in the positions they hold.

“(Town officials should) view any application for a wind turbine within the town objectively and determine what is in the best interest of the town and its residents,” she said. “It looks like they’ve put in a prohibition on any turbine coming into the town” with the recent law in place.

The lawsuit came as no surprise to the board, said Attorney Douglas H. Zamelis, who is representing the town.

“It is less usual for taxpayers to sue their town government when they adopt a local law because they face a heavy burden of proof,” he said.

Lawsuits involving hydrofracking in places such as Middlefield and Dryden are becoming more commonplace, he said. In February, judges in two separate decisions ruled in favor of the towns in Otsego County that had local ordinances to ban gas drilling.

The lawsuit

While the town law bans industrial turbines, officials noted that smaller, domestic powered turbines – 120 feet in height or less at 50 kilowatts – are permitted.

The citizens’ complaint challenges the local wind law, saying the Town Board violated several laws in the process of creating the new one. The lawsuit alleges that:

• The plaintiffs want to nullify the decision to ban large scale wind energy systems, which they say is in violation of the state Environmental Quality Review Act.

• When adopting a zoning ordinance, Tooher said officials did not refer to the county planning agency for review of the final local law. While it was reviewed once, Tooher asserted that officials received suggestions, but ignored them and enacted a completely different law.

• Finally, officials did not abide by the Open Meetings Law.

• While Zamelis did not want to comment on the allegations or his strategy, he did say, “the town intends to defend the suit aggressively.”

The debate

Previous reports described town meetings to be emotional and hostile.

Rasbach said his family has lived in Litchfield for 100 years, and he currently owns 800 acres.

“All of my neighbors are sick of this,” he said. “If you owned a bunch of land, would you want someone telling you what to do with it?”

Litchfield resident Doug Whitfield said prior board members weren’t as receptive to public input as the current ones.

“Anyone is invited to speak their mind at every town meeting,” he said, adding that meeting and public hearings were publicized and well-attended.

The case will be heard by Oneida County Supreme Court Justice Norman Siegel in Herkimer County Court on Thursday, Sept. 27.